Q&A with Christina Clancy, author of ‘Shoulder Season’

Set at the former Playboy Resort in Lake Geneva in 1981, the Madison author's second novel gives a rare glimpse into an unexamined world.
Author Christina Clancy sits at a table at Colectivo Coffee holding up an advance reader copy of her new book Shoulder Season
Photo by Maggie Ginsberg.
"Shoulder Season" is the second novel in two years from Madison author Christina Clancy.

Few among us will ever know what it was like to work as a Playboy Bunny in the early 1980s. But most know how it feels to be young and fumbling for a sense of identity, maybe making questionable decisions in pursuit of something bigger. These choices shape us, as do the stories we tell ourselves in the following decades about who we were and what it all meant. Some narratives, especially the damning ones, can limit us for a lifetime — whether they’re accurate or not. That’s what Madison author Christina Clancy explores through fictional Playboy Bunny Sherri Taylor in her second novel, Shoulder Season, out this month from St. Martin’s Press.

“It began as a novel about looking back. A story about regret,” says Clancy, who opens with a middle-aged Taylor in California preparing to return to her hometown of East Troy, Wisconsin, to finally face the complicated past that has defined her. “Even though Sherri makes a lot of mistakes, it’s really important to the story that she does that. There’s a tragic consequence to her mistakes but it’s not her fault. And after all these years, she cannot move on.”

53-year-old Clancy, who worked as a marketing strategist at IBM before going back to school to pursue a Ph.D. and teaching creative writing at Beloit College, was 52 when her debut novel came out (last year’s The Second Home, now out in paperback and optioned for television by the actor who played Jaime Lannister on “Game of Thrones”). We talked about what it’s like to be a middle-aged woman writing middle-aged characters; the celebrity power vortex created by Lake Geneva, the Playboy Resort and Alpine Valley, and why it provided the perfect setting to examine how differently we judge men’s and women’s appetites for sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. What follows is an abbreviated portion of that conversation, but Clancy will be up for more discussion when she celebrates her Madison launch — in person! — with Mystery to Me bookseller Charlotte Colaluca at State Lane Distillery on Tues., July 20.

I had no idea this history existed right down the road in Lake Geneva. Why haven’t I read a novel set there before? Or a novel featuring a Playboy Bunny, for that matter?
There’s a reason for that. I’ve been really critical of the fact that, when it became the Americana before it was the Grand Geneva, they took out any reference to Playboy and tried to expunge Playboy from the record. I guess I kind of understand it. When you look back on 1980, 1981, Playboy as a brand was changing because they were trying to compete with Penthouse and Hustler, but the new owners wanted a family resort — which it actually already was. I’ve talked to special education teachers who had conferences there. Grandparents who took their whole family after church for Sunday brunch. I saw my neighbor at this event over the 4th of July and he said when he was 12-years-old, he was in a Boy Scouts troop that had some sort of badge competition and whoever won got to fly in a Cessna to the Playboy Resort to have lunch at the Playboy lounge — and he won! So he’s 12 years old and he’s having lunch served by Playboy Bunnies. That’s what the culture was. And that story, more than any other, encapsulates what it was really like there.

As for why you haven’t read a single book where a Playboy Bunny is represented in literary fiction, there isn’t one that I know of. Which really is astounding. Like, Playboy is a ubiquitous part of our culture and never once has anyone ever actually tried to explore the value of a woman’s experience as a Playboy Bunny? Why am I the first? Why don’t we interrogate that?

So, where did you start? How did you research this book? Where did you draw the line between fact and fiction?
I did interview several bunnies. I often feel like I should have interviewed more, but when you’re writing fiction in some ways you don’t want to interview too many people because then you can’t imagine. But I would learn details and then use them as jumping off points. My husband’s family is from East Troy and we’d be out and I’d hear things. Someone told me the Bunnies were told they were just “Wisconsin cute.” Somebody else told me he’d dated a Bunny and that she never shaved her legs because they wore two pairs of tights. I just love that detail. But my main source was Pam Ellis, she was called “Bunny JoJo.” She was there for four years, and most Bunnies were not there that long, so she was just a treasure trove. She’s become a friend, and she loved talking about her experience and waxing nostalgic. But some people didn’t want to talk to me. Because they’re embarrassed, or feel like they’re stigmatized from their past, or their kids don’t even know that they were Bunnies — and this is 40 years later. Imagine having an experience that was so pivotal and changed who you are and your perspective on life, and you can’t even tell your daughter about it.

These were daughters of dairy farmers and auto plant workers, which was a little different from other Playboy resorts and clubs. Where did Sherri come from for you?
I wanted to write about East Troy for a long time. And at first I wanted to write about Lake Beulah, where we have a cabin. I was thinking about an entirely different story set on that lake when I remembered that Lawrencia Bembenek [better known as “Bambi”] used to party there — and she was a Playboy Bunny. So that’s what got me thinking. It’s also just interesting to think about this weird world of Wisconsin in the middle of winter, walking onto the floor of the resort barely dressed when you’re normally in a wool sweater in your dad’s barn — like, what is that like? So it became much more fun to write from Sherri’s perspective, and then the story just kind of became honed down. But then I was also having lunch with some women friends in their 60s and they said, “Why don’t you write about people our age? Because we’re really interesting but we never see ourselves in books.” And I thought, that’s really true. So the novel began as a novel looking back. If I’d written this book at 22, how would I be able to relate? The truth is, as you get older, there will be questions that you want answers to that you will never find out. How people felt, what they thought — you will never be able to circle back. And that is part of aging, and I wanted to write that. People are kind of awed by the fact that someone my age could suddenly become professionally successful writing books, and it makes me sad sometimes because I think, well, what do we think middle-aged women can do? So it’s great to write about a middle-aged character who is thinking, “Can I still reinvent myself? Can I move on?”

It’s wild to think about celebrities like Cher regularly flying her private jet to party with Alpine Valley rock stars … in Wisconsin. You also effectively demonstrate how differently men and women’s sexuality is viewed and judged through many of the male characters. I love the morning after scene with a cameo by a real life rock star — without giving anything away, what were you getting at there?

I was trying to find a band that played in 1981 at Alpine Valley, and the Allman Brothers did. I wanted to write about Gregg Allman for two reasons. One is because has a connection to Cher, who’d been at the resort. Two is because he also played the organ, like Sherri. It was really fun to write all that. But, like, here’s a guy who’s careening into alcoholism and drug abuse, and then Sherri is the one who punishes herself — but look at Gregg Allman. Sherri tries cocaine and for a year or so she has some wild times, but Gregg Allman, no one is judging him.

The Playboy resort is drawing all the attention, but this is also very much a coming-of-age story about a small-town girl who sort of flees home and then returns 40 years later, completely changed and seeing her hometown through more critical eyes. You said your husband’s family is from East Troy, is that why you set Sherri’s formative years there?
I very much wanted to write about East Troy because my father-in-law loved it so much. I was saying to him, like, I love what you love. Don’t you think that’s kind of how we love people? We love what they love. But both of my books are steeped in real places. I name streets and real restaurants and I want it to be credible and I want my characters to be informed by where they’re from. People love taking a walk down memory lane. It can be pleasurable for people to read and think, “I was there!”

There’s an amazing twist I didn’t see coming — did you know what was going to happen and sort of reverse engineer the book to write toward it?
No. I didn’t know that was coming until I wrote it. I was like Sherri. I wrote that and I was like [gasp], oh my gosh. So, I think if it can surprise me, it will surprise the reader. And then I had to go back and kind of massage the book so that you can get to that point that it makes sense.

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